Next week, it’s back to nonfiction with an essay called “Sexism Is Over.” (Spoiler warning: it might actually be about how sexism is not over.)
I was recently going back over some of Paul Graham’s essays, and I noticed something that bothered me while reading “Mind the Gap.” It’s an essay about how income disparities might actually be a sign of health, rather than a sign that something is wrong. That’s not the part that bothers me–it’s an issue I’ve written about myself and with which I mostly agree. No, what bothers me is this:
“A hundred years ago, the rich led a different kind of life from ordinary people. They lived in houses full of servants, wore elaborately uncomfortable clothes, and travelled about in carriages drawn by teams of horses which themselves required their own houses and servants. Now, thanks to technology, the rich live more like the average person. … Materially and socially, technology seems to be decreasing the gap between the rich and the poor, not increasing it.”
What he’s arguing here is that the gap between rich and poor may be quantitatively the same as in previous centuries (i.e., in terms of raw income), but qualitatively wealth makes less and less difference to the way people live. The rich today may still have much more money than the rest of us, he argues, but they are not leading fundamentally different lives anymore.
The problem with this argument is that it’s only half true. It seems clear that, as Graham argues, the gap between rich people and average people has been decreasing, especially in qualitative measures other than raw income. However, he never actually shows that the gap between rich and poor has substantially decreased. In fact, poverty has changed very little since the beginning of the industrial revolution, and in the most severe cases it has not changed at all in millennia.
In fact, in Graham’s own qualitative terms the gap between the poorest of the population and everyone else has only been increasing since the industrial revolution: the standard of life has been going up for most of us, but a beggar living on the streets today is facing conditions nearly identical in every practical respect to those faced by a beggar living in the streets in the 1800s–or, for that matter, the 800s.
Not only have the conditions of poverty not improved (in some ways, they’ve arguably gotten worse), but the demographics of poverty have not changed much either. Now, as ever, the poorest of the poor are overwhelmingly marginalized minorities: blacks, hispanics, homosexuals, the undereducated, people with mental or physical disabilities, religious and ideological outcasts, etc. Anyone who doesn’t fit the normalized ideal of (in our case) “straight white abled male” pays the price in lower wages, higher interest rates, less access to opportunities, poorer educations, and greater exposure to violence and substance abuse. Unless you’re willing to admit to the abhorrent belief that white males are genetically more competent than everyone else, you can’t argue that all these varied demographics bring poverty on themselves–their poverty has to be caused by something external. The obvious answer is that the cause of their poverty and the cause of their marginalization are one and the same: systemic social discrimination.
This is capitalism’s most glaring flaw. I consider myself an Objectivist in many ways, but the problem with Objectivism as portrayed by Ayn Rand is that it assumes the market is blind: let it do whatever it will, and the most competent people will win out. Unfortunately, the market is not blind. The market is made up of human beings, and human beings are biased. If I may quote PG once more…
“It’s absolute poverty you want to avoid, not relative poverty.”
…and there, as they say, is the rub. Poverty now is as absolutely bad as it has always been, and it is bad for almost exactly the same reasons. Until that stops, we have no hope of living in a true meritocracy.
“How can we make learning fun?”
Does this question sound familiar? Policymakers, parents, teachers and politicians ask it constantly. How can we make learning engaging? How can we make lessons relevant to students? How can we get kids to pay attention and make an effort? It’s not like no one’s been trying to fix this problem–so why does it persist? Easy: because we’re trying to answer the wrong question. When we ask how to make learning fun, we’re begging the question: learning doesn’t need to be made fun, it already is! Instead of asking “how can we make learning fun,” what we should be asking is “why do we believe that learning can’t be its own reward?” In other words: how are we sabotaging the natural learning process, and what can we do to support it instead?
I’ve lived in one apartment or another for several years now, and for the most part I like it. I get a place to live without having to commit to a 30-year mortgage or a lot of extra space I won’t need, I’m responsible for furnishings and the owners are responsible for maintenance, and if I want to move I just have to start paying someone else for their space instead of selling and buying my own–overall, it seems like a pretty decent arrangement. There is one convention of apartment ownership, however, that continues to bug me. Why aren’t the owners expected to pay a share of the utilities?
Obviously, tenants should be held at least partially responsible. The major deciding factor in utilities cost is usage, and that is something that is mostly within the tenant’s control. Mostly, but not entirely. Doesn’t it seem strange that under the conventional model, apartment owners have almost no incentive to invest in decent insulation, efficient appliances and fixtures, or other energy-saving features? It takes a minimal investment to make sure that doors and windows are properly sealed and hot water pipes are insulated, and energy-efficient appliances generally pay for themselves within a couple of years. Yet if the long-term cost for inefficient appliances and poor insulation is shuffled off onto the tenants, what motivation do the owners have to invest in these things? This is particularly troubling to me because energy efficiency has a direct impact on global warming emissions. If profit is the only incentive corporations have to reduce emissions and boost efficiency, shouldn’t we be making sure that their profits are at least related to their efficiency?
What do you think?
I am almost finished making my first real game! “Real” being a relative term, that is: my first game was an abstract, experimental undergraduate project that no one in their right mind would have voluntarily played. The one I’m working on now is a bit more enjoyable, though technically it is actually simpler. It’s called “Press A to Win.” Can you guess what it’s about?
I am making the game in Pygame, so you will need Pygame installed in order to play it. I know it’s a stretch, but I figure there’s at least a chance that some of you might not be familiar with installing, compiling, and running Pygame files, so as soon as the game is finished I figure my next project will be porting the whole thing to Flash.
At the moment, however, both of those projects will have to wait, as I am busy showing off my fiancé to my extended family in Muenster, Texas. I would say “nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here,” except it’s not even a terribly nice place to visit. The views are great and the weather is (currently) lovely, but the town itself is tiny, the water tastes like sulphur, and taking a shower feels like coating yourself in a thin sheen of silicone. I can never tell for sure if I’ve gotten all the soap off.
Regular posts resume next week with a return to the “Agency and the Inevitable” series, after which I will likely write something about education again. I am a big fan of that topic, it seems! See you all then.